1. The Lucksmiths, Naturaliste (Drive-In)
The Australian trio's seventh proper full-length perfects the band's gentle, acoustic-heavy sound. While still retaining the light-hearted charm of previous Lucksmiths outings, Naturaliste looks inward, resulting in a tuneful, smart, and unabashedly earnest set of songs worthy of a jangly pop band with a similar name -- the Smiths. The sparse production, recalling early Belle & Sebastian or even Rubber Soul-era Beatles, allows the finest songs of the year to shine through. Call them "precious" if you must, but don't underestimate the Lucksmiths.
2. Blur, Think Tank (Parlophone/Food)
This ageless British group became a trio while recording this album, ousting guitarist Graham Coxon, and it shows in the album's groove-heavy, free-form sound. It's remarkable that Blur made its most experimental album after losing the member who had always been the most vocally opposed to pop conventions. Whether on the thumping, disjoined "Ambulance", Middle East-flavored recordings like "Out of Time", or the ethereal "Battery in Your Leg" -- Coxon's only appearance -- Blur continues to prove it "ain't got nothing to be scared of".
3. The Constantines, Shine a Light (Sub Pop)
With husky vocals reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen, relentlessly angular guitars along the lines of Fugazi, and hyper-literate lyrics fit for Kerouac, the Constantines are one of a kind -- itself an accomplishment in a year full of bands merely echoing a finite set of influences. As good as this album is, though, its ambition leaves open leaves the tantalizing possibility that whatever vocalist Bryan Webb and the band release next could well be a masterpiece for the ages.
4. The Stills, Logic Will Break Your Heart (Vice)
After a 1980s-influenced EP that featured the brilliant "Still in Love Song", these Quebec natives updated their sound for their first full-length, stepping beyond the retro-'80s trend to release a grandiose account of lost love and post-9/11 angst. The influences here are bands like Radiohead and the Doves as much as Echo and the Bunnymen and the Cure, but while Coldplay's ability to write soaring anthems that recall early Radiohead is only matched by its lyrical vapidity, the Stills offer a complete package. Get it now so you can say "I told you so" when the Stills take over the world.
5. My Morning Jacket, It Still Moves (ATO)
If Neil Young were to take a cue from Beck and enlist the Flaming Lips as his backing band, My Morning Jacket would be the result. Reverb-drenched vocals and inspired, jammy guitar-playing bolster some of the best countrified songwriting since the phrase "alt-country" was just a twinkle in Jeff Tweedy's eye.
6. Death Cab for Cutie, Transatlanticism (Barsuk)
This Bellingham, Washington-based group's fourth album broadcasts to the world that Death Cab is Maturing As a Band. Often that means a band has lost its relevance; that is not the case here, as Ben Gibbard has provided some of the strongest songwriting efforts of his career (in a year already heavy with great Gibbard music via his Postal Service side project). "Maturing" also sometimes means a band's sound has become more accessible, for better or for worse, and that is definitely the case here, but resulting more from an increased focus on melody than a softening of the group's sound. Chris Walla's guitar-playing and production make for a record that doesn't quite achieve the epic status to which it sometimes seems to aspire, but which is still one of 2003's finest collections of songs.
7. Josh Ritter, Hello Starling (Signature)
Josh Ritter's albums are always uneven affairs, but the peaks far outweigh the few moments that are simply "good". The young folk troubadour from Moscow, Idaho, received acclaim from publications as estimable as the New York Times, and the hype continues to be deserved. Continuing where his previous two full-lengths left off, "Hello Starling" offers rootsy, wise-beyond-Ritter's-years observations worthy of the comparisons to Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie.
8. Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man, Out of Season (Sanctuary)
Beth Gibbons is the former lead singer of Portishead, but that's exactly the wrong reason to buy this record. Rather than electronic, trip-hop atmospherics, Out of Season indulges in an artful, stripped-down singer-songwriter form, allowing Gibbons's gorgeous, haunted voice to soar to the foreground. Songs like "Sand River" and "Funny Time of Year" are beautiful, sad, and utterly indispensable.
9. Pretty Girls Make Graves, The New Romance (Matador)
This Seattle band's sophomore release is a dark, urgent object lesson on all that can be great about indie rock. With accomplished musicianship, the band translates the best of post-punk and Sonic Youth into a distinctly 2003 sound, but none of that would matter if the songs weren't always memorable (a few small lyrical lapses notwithstanding). Vocalist Andrea Zollo still rocks, but never here at the expense of melody. All in all, The New Romance proves that Pretty Girls Make Graves are far more than just a clever name.
10. Belle & Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade)
With its over-the-top pop production, Dear Catastrophe Waitress all but gives the finger to the group's longtime fans. But while the intimate sound of Tigermilk or If You're Feeling Sinister is absent, the band's clever, evocative songwriting remains.
The Postal Service, Give Up (Sub Pop)
Decibully, City of Festivals (Polyvinyl)
The Long Winters, When I Pretend to Fall (Barsuk)
The Exploding Hearts, Guitar Romantic (Dirtnap)
Lucinda Williams, World Without Tears (Lost Highway)
The Wrens, The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher)
The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop)
Guster, Keep It Together (Warner)
OutKast, Speakerboxx/The Love Below (Arista)
1. Josh Ritter - "Wings"
Joan Baez has already covered this harrowing description of Ritter's home state, which seems like it could have been written 100 years ago, and deserves to be covered for 100 more.
2. The Lucksmiths - "Sandringham Line"
This entire list could be made up of songs from Naturaliste, but no song better indicates the Lucksmiths' musical and emotional growth than this slow, confident portrait of a girl and her uncertain future after she ends a relationship -- all framed by her train ride away. Best line: "I sat backwards on the train and suddenly / The city was further and further in front of me".
3. Blur - "Battery in Your Leg"
It's ironic that the only Think Tank song on which ex-guitarist Graham Coxon appears also happens to be the album's best, but that's just the way it is. "I've got nothing to rely on", sings Damon Albarn, "I've broken every bone". But his ostensibly reassuring last words on the record -- "You can be with me" -- take on a more poignant tone upon the realization that, due to the band's suddenly Behind the Music-worthy turmoil, Coxon can't be with the band anymore.
4. The Constantines - "On to You"
The Constantines could become one of the best bands in North America, and they seem to know it. But while much of Shine a Light obscures the band's knack for anthems with driving, jagged experimentalism, "On to You" crystallizes the Constantines' potential into one rousing, raucous, hook-laden stoke of genius.
5. The Stills - "Lola Stars and Stripes"
Anyone who expected more of the same from the Stills after their debut EP were confounded by this, the first track off Logic Will Break Your Heart. "Lola" takes the Stills from merely "good" to "great" and sets the stage for the rest of the album with its existential drama. "Will the world end me and you?" the Stills ask again and again in the song's chorus. The outcome: Stills 1, World 0.